Manchester City have broken their transfer record. Their £60m purchase of Riyad Mahrez is the third biggest intra-Premier League transfer ever. And yet this really quite expensive signing may have bizarrely passed you by, buried ten pages back in the Daily Mail sports pages and 11 in the Daily Mirror. On a great day to bury bad news, City have contrived to bury good news. And it is very good news, regardless of the collective shrug on the brink of a World Cup semi-final and in the shadow of Ronaldo’s not-mental-but-it-really-should-be £99m switch to Juventus.
There has been little or no reaction to this £60m transfer, not just because of the low-key timing of its announcement, but because this is Manchester City and it feels like a pointless transfer. Having finished last season with 100 points and 106 goals, why do they need another attacking player? Why do they need another right-winger when they have Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva?
For the answers to those questions, look at Manchester City’s starting line-up for their biggest game of last season, away at Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals. Pep Guardiola – uncharacteristically too mindful of Sterling’s previous struggles at Anfield – decided that he could not play his most potent attacking trio. His second option should have been Bernardo Silva, but the Portuguese has never once screamed ‘pick me’ since his £43m switch from Monaco. Indeed, it’s actually quite easy to forget he is a City player at all. Guardiola did not forget, but he did put him on the bench beside England’s World Cup semi-finalists Sterling, John Stones and Fabian Delph.
So who played on the right wing for this uber-rich, Premier League-dominant Manchester City side in their biggest game of the season? Ilkay Gundogan of course. “Do I think it worked? We lost 3-0,” said Guardiola. The Manchester Evening News gave Gundogan 1/10 in their ratings, noting that he ‘looked utterly lost after lining up on the right side’. Still think they don’t need Mahrez?
For all City’s wealth, they have an oddly thin squad. In a 38-game league season, only four players played on the wings – and one of those was a cameo from Gabriel Jesus. In a 57-game club season, Sterling and Leroy Sane were two of six outfield players who logged over 3,500 minutes of football; City were incredibly lucky that both were unavailable for just a handful of games. As odd as it seems to say this after a record-breaking season, they do need help. And although some help was forthcoming from B Silva, the long-term plan for him is to move inside to take some of the burden from his now-32-year-old namesake David. There was enough spark in his performance in that position for Portugal against Uruguay to suggest that the plan is not a poor one.
Meanwhile, Mahrez is already the player that Guardiola hoped B Silva would become at City, the left-footed right-winger who drifts inside, creates space and is devastating on the counter-attack. Even in his After The Lord Mayor’s Show season, he still managed 12 Premier League goals and 10 assists, a total only beaten by players at the Premier League’s top four clubs. There will have to be a period of adjustment – Mahrez is not a man used to playing in a possession-hungry team – but a devastating ability to beat players is universal.
Manchester City have broken their transfer record and it is a fine signing. Ignore it at your peril.